Some video game series endure because the core concept is so brilliant that you can adapt, adjust and put endless twists on the formula and the games will never stop being fun. I think this is why Kirby has endured for so long. His games have always been simple and easy platformers, but the character is so fun to control and so unlike any other video game character that there never seems to be a moment when the beloved pink puffball isn’t on the minds of gamers.
The character first appeared in the 1992 Game Boy game Kirby’s Dream Land. The game took place on the Planet Popstar and the plot involved the greedy King Dedede stealing food from the citizens of Dream Land and Kirby venturing to Mt. Dedede to defeat the evil king and take the food back. The key gameplay mechanics that made the game so fun were Kirby’s ability to inhale enemies and objects and spit them out again in the form of an attack, as well as Kirby’s ability to puff himself up and fly around in the air.
In the second game Kirby’s Adventure (1993) for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the copy ability was introduced. Swallowing enemies would allow Kirby to copy them. For example, swallowing an enemy that breathes fire would transform Kirby into Fire Kirby, and swallowing a knight would transform Kirby into Sword Kirby. The possibilities for copy abilities were endless and they have been a series mainstay ever since, also contributing to the game’s popularity.
The developer of the Kirby games is HAL Laboratory, a Japanese software company founded in 1980 which started out making computer games for the Commodore 64 and the MSX, such as the Eggerland games, which served as the basis for the Adventures of Lolo puzzle game series which was introduced on the NES in 1989 and was HAL Laboratory’s most popular pre-Kirby video game. But by the nineties, HAL faced financial strain due to the costly development and lukewarm reception of their ambitious Famicom game Metal Slader Glory (1991). Nintendo decided to save HAL Laboratory from bankruptcy under the condition that HAL employee Satoru Iwata (who Nintendo trusted after he brought them success as the producer of Adventures of Lolo) would be made HAL’s president. And so began HAL’s close working relationship with Nintendo and Iwata’s tenure as president of HAL Laboratory which began in 1993 (he brought Nintendo so much success that he eventually became the president of Nintendo, serving from 2002 until his death in 2015).
A young man from Tokyo, Japan named Masahiro Sakurai joined HAL Laboratory as a teenager and he came up with the prototype for Kirby when he was 19. Kirby started out as a dummy character for a platforming game HAL was working on, and who would later be remodeled with a more sophisticated character design, but the developers fell in love with the character the way he was and he remained a round puffball. His original Japanese name was Popopo and the game was going to be called “Popopo of the Spring Breeze,” with HAL intending to produce it independently, but the financially struggling HAL asked Nintendo to publish the game instead. Nintendo changed the name of the character from Popopo to Kirby under the suggestion of Nintendo of America (“Kirby” is not only the name of a popular vacuum cleaner brand in Cleveland, but Nintendo also won a legal battle against Universal in the eighties over the use of the name “Kong” in their game Donkey Kong thanks to a lawyer named John Kirby who proved the name “Kong” was in the public domain – naming the hero from Dream Land “Kirby” is believed to be a loving homage).
The final name of the game in Japan would be Kirby of the Stars, while the U.S. version would be titled Kirby’s Dream Land. Sakurai designed and directed the game with the intention of creating a simple and easy platformer for people who were not used to playing games with a lot of action. The game had four levels you had to traverse before reaching King Dedede:
You would travel between these areas by the use of a Warp Star, a star-shaped transportation device that Kirby can ride, and as you explore these areas, you will regularly run into boss fights, which often would require you to inhale the objects they hurl in your direction and spit them back their way, such as the tree named Whispy Woods who hurls apples at you in Green Greens.
Sakurai originally intended for Kirby to be pink with red shoes, but the monochrome display of the Game Boy meant Kirby had to be white in his first game, which led to very different box art for the game in Japan and America.
Kirby of the Stars was released in Japan in 1992 and became HAL Laboratory’s most successful game to date and people sited the puffball’s very original and fun gameplay style for the game’s enormous success. Hardcore gamers dismissed it as a short and simplistic game that lacked real challenge, but of course this was intentional on Sakurai’s part, and that may have in fact been a brilliant move because that easy learning curve might have helped contribute to its success, especially among younger gamers. It was certainly more cute and breezy than typical platformers of the nineties like Sonic the Hedgehog which tried to be “cool” by targeting teenage boys, but handheld systems like Game Boy also had a wider crossover appeal among more demographics.
A ton of Kirby sequels followed. The first was Kirby’s Adventure, also designed and directed by Sakurai and released for the NES a year after Kirby’s first game. It allowed Kirby to copy the abilities of his enemies for the first time.
The Game Boy sequel Kirby’s Dream Land 2 (1995) introduced the concept of Kirby having animal friends aiding him in his travels, including Rick the hamster who can run faster and doesn’t slip on ice, Coo the owl who can fly faster and is able to withstand harsh winds, and Kine the ocean sunfish who can swim faster and is able to go against strong currents.
Other Kirby adventure games include Kirby Super Star (1996) for the Super NES which featured several original Kirby adventures in one under the direction of Sakurai, Kirby’s Dream Land 3 (1997) for the Super NES, and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (2000) for Nintendo 64, featuring Kirby in three-dimensional environments for the first time and introducing the ability to copy several enemies at once and combine abilities (for example, copying an electric enemy and an ice enemy at the same time turned Kirby into a refrigerator, and copying an electric enemy and a sword enemy at the same time gave Kirby a double-edged lightsaber). There was also Kirby & the Amazing Mirror (2004) for Game Boy Advance, Kirby: Squeak Squad (2006) for Nintendo DS, Kirby’s Return to Dream Land (2011) for Wii, Kirby: Triple Deluxe (2014) for Nintendo 3DS, Kirby: Planet Robobot (2016) for Nintendo 3DS, Kirby Star Allies (2018) for Nintendo Switch and Kirby and the Forgotten Land (2022) for Nintendo Switch.
More experimental and less traditional adventure games include Kirby: Canvas Curse (2005, Nintendo DS) in which you did not control Kirby but instead guided him using the Nintendo DS stylus; Kirby’s Epic Yarn (2010, Wii) which saw Kirby get sucked into a world made of yarn and get turned into yarn himself, which meant he couldn’t fly or inhale enemies but he had many other new abilities such as the yarn whip, which he could use to attack enemies and manipulate the environment around him; Kirby Mass Attack (2011, Nintendo DS) in which you used the stylus to guide multiple Kirbys; and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse (2015, Wii U) which was a follow-up to Canvas Curse in which you guided Kirby using the Wii U GamePad, all presented in a claymation-like art style.
Spin-off games include Kirby’s Pinball Land (1993, Game Boy); mini-golf game Kirby’s Dream Course (1994, Super NES); puzzle game Kirby’s Avalanche (1995, Super NES); Breakout clone Kirby’s Block Ball (1995, Game Boy); puzzle game Kirby’s Star Stacker (1997, Game Boy); Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble (2000, Game Boy Color) in which you literally moved Kirby by tilting your Game Boy Color via the game cartridge’s built-in motion sensor; Warp Star racing game Kirby Air Ride (2003, GameCube); and multiplayer brawler Kirby Battle Royale (2017, Nintendo 3DS).
Kids who grew up in the 2000s may also remember an anime television adaptation called Kirby of the Stars (Kirby Right Back at Ya! in America) which ran for 100 episodes from 2001 to 2003 on TV Tokyo, airing on FOX in the U.S. It was aimed mostly at kids and was not very memorable. It was repetitive and lacked real thrills. Although it had a variety of satirical references to pop culture and current events that adults could appreciate more than kids.
Since Masahiro Sakurai launched Kirby into stardom, he went on to found the company Sora Ltd. with his wife Michiko Sakurai to develop games freelance, his first project being designing the 2005 tile-matching puzzle video game Meteos. He later directed Kid Icarus: Uprising (2012) the Nintendo 3DS sequel to the NES game Kid Icarus, and he has also been the mastermind behind the Super Smash Bros. series (which features Kirby as a playable character) since it was introduced on the Nintendo 64 in 1999. However Kirby remains Sakurai’s most prolific contribution to the gaming industry.